Most of the time the students in my workshops are sensitive and tactful, attending to the strengths and possibilities in their fellows’ work. Most of the time, students respect and appreciate each other’s writing goals and put forth sincere and helpful comments that help the writer along. I have a rule in my workshops that the first comments must always refer to the strengths in the work. Thereafter, comments on what might enhance, enrich and clarify the piece of writing at hand are welcome and important. They, in addition to support, are what the writer is there for. Most of the time, this system works well. Workshop members really work as collaborators with one another, trying to help each person’s work fulfill its promise.
Once in a while, though, a person in a workshop may comment in such a way as to be quite hurtful to one or more of the group members. Once in a while, a brusque, troubled, or harsh person—some one, probably, who was treated in like fashion by someone significant in his/her life– may run rough-shod through the room. (I remember one instructor I had saying learning should be painful—and so, he inflicted pain.) Or, a certain individual in the group may, by manner or nuance of personality, lacerate another person in the group. The recipient of the troubling comment may spend the night, the next week, or the next fifty years, fuming, hurt or damaged by such a person’s stray comment–or string of them. More than one talented person has quit writing after one off-base person made a single stupid quip.
I am not referring here to the sorts of comments that cause you chagrin, and are irritating, because they just might have a grain of truth in them—and because, if addressed, they might require substantial revision, or indeed an overhaul of your work. Those are the sorts of comments that make you despair because, actually, after a week or two of stewing, or when you return to the piece you threw under your bed, you realize they are crucial and right and you have to act on them. Those are the ones that drive you crazy because you had thought you’d finally got the thing down, and it turned out that you hadn’t—or that there was something more that needed to be done—and now, damn it, you have more work ahead of you. Maybe years of work.
Rather, here I am talking about comments that, whether intentionally or not—make you feel awful as a person. Perhaps they ring an old bell, or you are sensitive to a particular word the person used, or the person used a tone of voice that sounded to you like sneering, arrogance or ridicule. It doesn’t even matter if the comment might have some truth in it. If it lacerates, it is wrong for you.
My advice when this sort of thing happens is this: When a comment is hurtful, off-base, and/or cuts to your core, you MUST throw it in the rubbish bin. Mentally or physically, take those comments, crumple them, rip them up, stab them even, and give them the toss. Just like that: Throw them out.